Copernicus: Still Dead

By Julianne Dalcanton | November 21, 2008 5:26 pm

It seems that archeologists have definitively identified the remains of Copernicus, using a combination of forensic reconstruction and DNA matching. Historians were pretty sure that he was buried in a particular church, but weren’t quite sure where within it the grave actually was. They found a likely set of bones a few years back, and a reconstruction of the face from the skull sure looked an awful lot like Copernicus. (It also happened to look an awful lot like James Cromwell, the actor who played Farmer Hoggett in Babe, but he’s still alive).


While exercises like this are of historical interest, to me they’ve always raised the question as to when a set of remains becomes fair game for mucking about. If you were to dig up poor great aunt Edna, extract her skull, and sent it off to a lab in Sweden, you might be looked upon as being disrespectful or worse. But, digging about to find the remains of Copernicus is apparently completely OK, and was actually ordered by the local Catholic bishop. So when does this happen? Is there something like the copyright system where the right to be outraged by disturbance of a grave expires after a certain number of years? Is it more like radioactivity of the soul, where the connection to something sacred fades with an e-folding time?

It’s certainly a culturally loaded question as well. Locally, a set of 9000 year old remains found in the Pacific Northwest were the subject of dispute. Local tribes claimed Kennewick Man as one of their ancestors, and requested that the remains be given back to the Umatilla tribe for reburial. Scientists, on the other hand, wanted to continue to study the remains, and argued that testing showed that the skeleton was unlikely to have actually been a member of one of the tribes. There are on-going law suits to repatriate native american skeletons to their tribes. So obviously different cultures have different standards for when it’s acceptable to study their dead, and Copernicus lost out.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Humanity, Science and Society
  • Peter de Blanc

    I give permission for future scientists to dig up my corpse and study it. Anyone else?

  • daisyrose

    Well he is dead ? And for a long time – I say let them have their fun and I like hearing about him – Copernicus is news!

  • bigjohn756

    What’s the big deal about respecting dead bodies? Respect the memory of the person that lived in it, but forget the body. Keeping rotting meat in a hole in the ground strikes me as bizarre at least, and, is really a waste of space. Ancient religious practices serve no purpose in this day and age.

  • Toiski

    “…serve no purpose in this day and age.”

    Oh but they do. Even though most people are aware that the body is just decomposing organic matter, a grave has a symbolic value. I don’t think one should underestimate symbols, religious or other kinds. If going to a place where one knows the earthly remains of a loved one are “preserved” helps connect with a memory of that person and acts as a catalyst for processing one’s own thoughts, then it serves an important purpose.
    Now, I don’t believe in an immortal soul, but I know some do, and for them, visiting a grave can be comforting in a sense. If burying dead human meat in a place specifically designated for burying dead human meat, and then going there to remember how the person it used to be was like, makes someone feel better, then it’s probably worth it. (<- bad, bad run on sentence)

  • moshe

    Chalk it up to lack of imagination, but I fail to see the point of the exercise. So, we have Copernicus remains, without a shred of a doubt, now what?

  • Dean Barnett

    James Cromwell as the farmer is “Babe” is OK, but let’s not forget he also played warp-drive inventor Zefran Cochran in “Star Trek: First Contact'”. Copernicus might have appreciated that reference a bit more.

  • joe

    Once a man becomes a figure of history and has no known living descendents, then I say he’s fair game for historical inquiry. It’s sad when a great person’s grave is lost; I myself would like to know where Mozart is buried. Anyway, a bishop ordered the study, so even highly religious people thought it was ok to look for Copernicus’s grave.

  • Count Iblis

    Copernicus is not dead at all. He is alive and well in the year 1500. People in the year 2200 may be digging up our bones and they may say that “we are dead”, but we know that they are wrong to say that, as we are alive today in the year 2008.

  • Freiddie

    “I give permission for future scientists to dig up my corpse and study it. Anyone else?”


  • Schwa

    I think a major factor in how upset people get is how put-upon they feel they are, culturally. Native Americans have been screwed for hundreds of years, so a native skeleton in a museum is a symbol of powerlessness – they don’t even control where their dead go. On the other hand, a bishop ordering that Copernicus be exhumed demonstrates exactly the opposite – they have such control over their dead that they can make exceptions to the rules.

  • KC

    Actually I think this was pretty cool that they figured out this was Copernicus. Can you think of a more famous scientist? If I’m ever near Frombork, I’ll be sure to pay my respects.

  • Grayorchid

    It would be interesting to see what other research could be done with Copernicus’ remains. Lets have a look at his teeth to see what his late childhood was like. Lets look at his fingernails… What was he eating in his last months? Since he has already been disturbed, it would be a shame to have the remains of someone from the “upper class” of that timeframe go without such investigation.

    For someone who has been dead for so long, I could not personaly object to the disturbance of his remains. Copernicus led a entirely different life than anyone alive today, so studying them will offer some insight into a past no one remembers. The fact that Copernicus is.. well, Copernicus, is rather unimportant in this light. But I wonder what the Bishops motivation was. Around the world the Catholic faith is losing followers, or at least active ones. I have read that this abandoment of the faith is even more common in europe than elsewhere. Maybe this Bishop is allowing Copernicus’ remains to be exumed and reconstructed not only to put a more accurate face on history, but also put his church on the map agian.

  • yotta

    I could have sworn by the title and first paragraph that this was Sean’s sense of humor at work. You had me busting up. Nice post!!

  • No. 9

    Youse guys are missing a great opportunity here–if Native North Americans could do it with Kennewick Man, think of the publicity and rights cosmologists could get by claiming Copernicus’s bones! You want that new space telescope or not? Hie thee to a lawyer!

  • andy.s

    Yes, yes, but you’re leaving out the most important detail: did the DNA of Copernicus match James Cromwell?

    You science-y guys could easily get a lot more page hits if you mixed in a little celebrity gossip from time to time, you know.

  • My-Name-is-Kenneth

    A dead body can serve only two purposes: As food for worms and giving evidence and clues to science and historians. Everything else is just so much overwrought sentimentality for a person who is no longer with us.

    And I have no major interest in feeding worms, who have enough sustenance from other sources.

  • mandydax

    I posted this ( ) as soon as I saw the reconstruction. I guess I’m not the only one who saw the similarity, and yes, Dean, I think this crowd will recognize him more from his role in First Contact.

  • Bill Nettles

    What about Jack Bauer’s dad on 24?

  • Julianne

    He was also the corrupt police superintendent(?) in LA Confidential.

  • http://None Justin

    Copernicus is a hero who died for his beliefs. His beliefs are of great benefit to humanity. His beliefs did allow global pillaging on a scale never before imagined (such as the killing of 5 million people, in 3 years, by Christopher Columbus). However, the discoveries by Copernicus also allowed humanity untold resources, space to avoid the plagues of the time, possibly even success of our species at the top of the food chain.

    One can be as disrespectful of a grave, as they were of the man. One may also cherish that which is contained inside a grave, respectfully allow the person the credibility they earned in life, and build a monument to a fallen hero. I believe the Catholic Church owes this man a chance
    to live on — in death — long after the life they took away from him.


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